Friday, 15 February 2013

The Fowler Family Business by Jonathan Meades

I remember reading a clipped biography of Jonathan Meades written by Clive James a few years back. In it, James, verbose as usual, describes Meades thus: 
Please note: drinking the
run-off from tin mining
may make you infertile.
"Meades is a superb political commentator even on an historical scale. Nobody has written better about the mystical proclivities of the top Nazis, and a TV show of his that connected Himmler’s sinister mystical vision with King Arthur’s Camelot is still in my mind when I wake sweating in the night. To induce such discomfort is part of the Meades mission. Clearly it is a mental area in which he lives every day. The wonder is that it doesn’t scramble the powers of composition behind a prose style so pugnaciously cultivated, so unpredictably informative, and, enviably often, so extremely funny."
Having never read his political commentary, seen his Nazi documentaries or heard him ramble through architecture rambling about architecture, I can proffer no counterpoint view. I did however read quite a few of the food and restaurant reviews he wrote in The Times (back when I thought A. A. Gill hilarious and The Times sports pages the best of the broadsheets' and before you required a subscription to read it all on-line) before he stopped, citing his subsequent insalubrious weight-gain as the main reason, and I can say without fear of contradiction that they were quite outstanding. I give you a recent example of his work:
"The self-regarding, hermetic world of gastronomy has produced few constructions more likely to promote teeth-gnashing, mockery and despairing contempt than “fine dining”, which should be pronounced in a refained accent – think Lynda Snell or Sir Elf Remsey or Morningsaide. It is a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers: one of the smug oafs who presents MasterChef recently observed that if a contestant was to scale the heights of “fine dining” he had to remove the outer shell of each individual pea."
In essence, here is evidence of all that would define Meades' style as found in The Fowler Family Business - high style, low common denominator. This is just the sort of thing that resonates a deep satisfaction in me, as reader. He lambastes the follies and foibles of fools, engendering sympathy with those of the squeezed middle classes who like me appreciate the trouble to which an author goes to add some challenging vocabulary. In the novel, Henry Fowler, younger nominal of Fowler & Sons undertakers, is a stiff prude whose life undergoes a dramatic and violent change as the result of... well, let's not spoil the plot. Suffice to say, Henry is cuckolded in more ways than one, and his moral compass is set a-swinging as a result. What Meades appears to enjoy is the releasing of the shackles of polite, civilised moral constraint. I could feel the rumbles of anticipatory delight build to crescendo as he describes Henry becoming aroused by the sight of a visually impaired temp bulging from the confines of his dead mother's wedding dress, who in turn provides relief to the engorged Mr Fowler resulting in some unwholesome soiling of satin, chiffon and lace. Lampoon! His engagement with the vernacular, his understanding of literary and cultural convention, and his undisguised joy when delivering quasi-visual debauchery and corruption into the readers' laps all combine to create a very successful, darkly comic, and thoroughly absorbing novel.

A word of caution however. It might be said that the first major event of the novel, broached early and swiftly abandoned to memory, appears to have no significant bearing on the events that follow, other than by providing early filler material, scene-setting info-dump if you will, and a neat introduction to and raison d'être of an integral character of the second half of the book. I'm not sure why this doesn't come up again later (other than in the amyloid-plaque-confused remembrances of Mr Fowler senior), and the book ends without confronting it at all. A single imperfect point of dissatisfaction perhaps amidst an otherwise unblemished success, but one of those that discomforts like a malignant mole. And I think that is a suitably dark note on which to end.

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